The photos are hard to look at.
In one, former Vice President Joe Biden appears to bite a little girl’s cheek. In another, former President Barack Obama sits in a boat alongside actor George Clooney and a small child. The image is juxtaposed with a photo of a human trafficking victim.
Other photos published on social media include long lists of celebrities and public figures — including the Clintons, Oprah and Justin Bieber — with allegations of sexual misconduct.
"Are you awake yet?" reads one Instagram post with more than 100,000 likes.
The images were flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.) Several fact-checkers havedebunked them.
(Screenshot from Instagram)
The posts are just a few examples of unproven pedophilia accusations that have recently gone viral with #SaveTheChildren — a seemingly innocuous and philanthropic hashtag that is in fact linked to years-old unproven sex trafficking and pedophilia conspiracy theories involving politicians and celebrities.
Over the past month, #SaveTheChildren has received tens of millions of likes, shares and comments on Facebook and Instagram, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool owned by Facebook. Search interest in the phrase ballooned during the first week of August, and people in severalcitiesacrossthe country have held in-person rallies to promote the movement.
But what exactly is #SaveTheChildren, and why has it recently taken off on social media? Here’s what you need to know.
Hashtag isn’t tied to a humanitarian organization
It may sound philanthropic, but #SaveTheChildren isn’t tied to a humanitarian organization that bears the same name.
Save the Children is a London humanitarian organization that aims to improve the lives of children around the world, including work against child trafficking.
But Save the Children has nothing to do with the viral hashtag.
"In the United States, Save the Children is the sole owner of the name ‘Save the Children,’ which is a registered trademark," the organization wrote in an Aug. 7 statement. "While many people may choose to use our organization’s name as a hashtag to make their point on different issues, we are not affiliated or associated with any of these campaigns."
Many Facebook posts using the hashtag confirm this. In fact, on Aug. 10, several widely shared posts called for people to use another hashtag altogether.
(Screenshot from Facebook)
"DANG IT GUYS!" reads one post with more than 14,000 shares. "‘Save The Children’ is an actual organization connected to Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Foundation. Some of the very people directly responsible for hurting children."
"I will be using #SaveOurChildren instead regarding child trafficking. Spread the word."
There is no evidence that the Gates or Clinton families are involved in child sex trafficking. Those baseless claims are linked to a conspiracy theory that was born during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Conspiracy theorists co-opted the hashtag
If Save the Children isn’t responsible for the recent surge of posts about child sex trafficking, who is? All evidence points to a mix of conspiracy theorists and concerned social media users.
Posts with #SaveTheChildren and #SaveOurChildren spiked on Facebook during the last week of July and the first of August.
The posts startedcirculatingin QAnon and Pizzagate Facebook groups in July before spreading to conservative sources like PragerU, according to CrowdTangle. More recently, users with large followings — such as evangelical internet personality Joshua Feuerstein, actor Cung Le and Mike the Cop — gave #SaveTheChildren a boost.
As the hashtag spread, some Facebook users claimed Aug. 5 that the platform was blocking posts with #SaveTheChildren.
(Screenshot from Facebook)
Facebook told Snopes it did temporarily block the hashtag because it was surfacing "low-quality content," but that it has since been restored. We were able to share a post with #SaveTheChildren without a problem.
The spike in posts aligned with World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, which the United Nations recognized on July 30. But #SaveTheChildren has been used in conjunction with terms associated with QAnon and Pizzagate since at least early 2017, according to an advanced Twitter search. Both conspiracy theories make baseless claims about sex trafficking.
The main message of QAnon, which evolved from the 2016 Pizzagate conspiracy theory and takes its name from a 4chan user named "Q" — a reference to a security clearance needed for high-level government information — is unclear. But many followers believe in "The Storm," which is when they claim Donald Trump and special counsel Robert Mueller will start arresting former presidents and other members of the "Deep state" for their involvement in pedophile rings, among other offenses.
While QAnon started as a fringe conspiracy theory, it has recently become more widespread.
RELATED: QAnon and Donald Trump rallies: What's that about?
NBC News reported Aug. 10 that an internal Facebook investigation has found thousands of groups and pages with millions of members and followers dedicated to QAnon. On Aug. 11, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon supporter, won the House primary election in Georgia’s 14th Congressional District.
"The QAnon community repurposes materials and memes that are floating around. Its main narrative focuses on pedophile allegations that are almost entirely unsubstantiated," said Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida and a conspiracy theory expert, in an email. "It was probably only a matter of time before its followers adopted that hashtag, especially given the organization’s longstanding renown."
A surge of false child sex trafficking claims
Why have conspiracy theorists used #SaveTheChildren to more aggressively spread their beliefs? It has to do with branding.
"The whole danger of this whole thing is that it’s such an effective entrypoint for QAnon and Pizzagate’s style of thinking," said Travis View, co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, in a recent episode. "There’s no decoding involved. It doesn’t ask you to go through the Podesta emails, it doesn’t ask you to read the Q drops — it asks you to recognize that children are being harmed and trafficked and then get outraged about it."
The posts are also tied to a rash of other recent conspiracy theories that seek to tie prominent Democrats and celebrities to child sex trafficking.
Since the arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell — a longtime associate of Jeffrey Epstein who’s accused of helping the financier procure underage girls — in early July, a series of online rumorshave linked high-profile celebrities andpoliticians to Epstein or Maxwell. A recent post falsely claimed that Biden owns a private island near Epstein’s.
After a massive explosion in Beirut killed more than 200 people Aug. 4, posts in Facebook groups dedicated to QAnon and Pizzagate were quick to blame it on Hillary Clinton’s child sex trafficking ring.
Conspiracy theorists have recently posted photos of Ellen DeGeneres and stills from the movie "Lilo & Stitch" in an effort to support allegations of child sex trafficking in Hollywood.
All of those claims are baseless. But since they deal with a repugnant action like child sex trafficking, they have a good chance of going viral.
That was the case when a conspiracy theory about Wayfair reached millions of people on social media in mid July. The theory falsely claimed that the online furniture store was shipping children to pedophiles inside expensive, industrial-grade cabinets. It spread widely on platforms popular with teenagers and young adults, such as Instagram and TikTok.
RELATED: How the Wayfair child sex-trafficking conspiracy theory went viral
Experts say allegations about child molestation or sex trafficking aren’t uncommon in conspiracy theories. In fact, they can be foundational to their false claims.
"The panic around widespread and prevalent sex trafficking by certain groups (sometimes the rich and politically powerful, sometimes members of certain religions) has been around for a very long time," Fenster said. "Sexual deviance is often viewed as part of, even a central motivation for, nefarious conspiracies."
In June, Justin Bieber went live on his Instagram account. Among the countless questions and comments directed at the pop star was one from a social media user who asked Bieber to touch his hat if he were a survivor of child sex trafficking. Bieber did subsequently adjust his beanie, but it's entirely likely that he'd never even noticed the request. However, for followers of the Pizzagate conspiracy, it offered proof of their belief in a powerful cabal of pedophiles who not only traffic kids for sex, but also physically abuse and even murder and cannibalize them in horrifying Satanic rituals.
The fact that no evidence supports this thoroughly debunked theory hasn't stopped Pizzagate, which first went viral in 2016 before making a resurgence in recent months, from spreading. Here's what you should know.
What the hell is Pizzagate?
It all started in early November 2016, when Clinton campaign manager John Podesta's email was hacked and the messages were published by Wikileaks. One of the emails, according to The New York Times, was between Podesta and James Alefantis, the owner of D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong. The message discussed Alefantis hosting a possible fundraiser for Clinton.
Users of the website 4Chan began speculating about the links between Comet Ping Pong and the Democratic Party, according to the BBC, with one particularly vile connection burbling to the surface: the pizzeria is the headquarters of a child trafficking ring led by Clinton and Podesta.
Yes. The conspiracy theory that prominent members of the Democratic Party are somehow involved in a global child-trafficking ring took root on far-right conservative websites. According to the BBC, the conspiracy theory linking this very false theory to Comet kicked around 4Chan until someone posted a long document with "evidence" to a now-banned alt-right section of Reddit several days before the U.S. election. The alt right is a fringe group of far-right extremists—comprised, mostly, of white supremacists and old-fashioned racists—who share their views and various forms of propaganda online.
Also, the nation of Turkey is involved in the spread of Pizzagate.
Around mid-November, the BBC explained, a pro-government media outlet in Turkey started tweeting the conspiracy theory using the hashtag #pizzagate. The reason, according to The Daily Dot, is that supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were trying to accuse opponents of hypocrisy. An actual child-abuse scandal had rocked a foundation connected to the Turkish government, and Erdogan's supporters were asking why people weren't also outraged over Pizzagate. In other words, it was meant as a distraction.
How does this involve Comet Ping Pong?
The 120-seat restaurant opened in D.C. in 2006 years ago and, according to The New York Times, is considered a kid-friendly place, with ping-pong tables and craft rooms. It's also played host to concerts by local musicians, including the band Fugazi.
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Comet Ping Pong's owner, James Alefantis, is an artist and D.C.-native who was a Clinton supporter but had never met her, according to the Times. Alefantis has prominent friends in the Democratic party. Tony Podesta, brother of John Podesta, frequents the restaurant.
Alefantis was also in a relationship with David Brock, the founder of the website Media Matters for America. The Times described Brock as "a provocative former right-wing journalist who became an outspoken advocate for Mrs. Clinton."
The restaurant's staff and customers have come under frequent assault online because of this nonsense.
The Washington PostGetty Images
As fake news stories on far-right conservative blogs began to pile up and spread online, the Facebook page and Instagram feed of Comet Ping Pong began filling up with comments to the tune of "we're on to you." It quickly spiraled out of control, with threatening messages pouring through. "I will kill you personally," one message read, according to the Times.
Alefantis and his staff of 40 people received threatening phone calls and text messages. Photos of customers' children posted online were taken and used in articles as evidence of the child-abuse ring. Many of those customers, the Times noted, hired lawyers to have the pictures removed.
As the threats mounted—including one person who showed up at the restaurant to investigate for himself—Alefantis contacted local police as well as the FBI. He also got in touch with Twitter, Facebook and Reddit in an effort to remove the posts and stories about the conspiracy theory.
None of it worked. The social media posts, texts and phone calls continued to mount.
The situation finally boiled over into real violence.
On the afternoon of Sunday, December 4 2016, 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch, of Salisbury, North Carolina, walked through the front door of Comet Ping Pong and pointed an assault rifle in the direction of an employee, according to the Associated Press. The employee fled and called police, but Welch fired his gun, possibly striking the walls, door, and a computer. No one was hurt.
Police surrounded the pizzeria, according to The Washington Post, which said Welch emerged about 45 minutes later, his hands in the air, to surrender to authorities. He told police he'd gone to the restaurant to "self-investigate" reports of the child-trafficking ring.
He was carrying a Colt AR-15 rifle, a Colt .38 handgun, a shotgun and a folding knife. Police charged him with assault with a dangerous weapon, other weapons offenses and destruction of property.
Earlier, Welch allegedly drove his Buick LeSabre into a teenage pedestrian in North Carolina, according to Slate. The 13-year-old "suffered head, torso, and leg injuries, WBTV reported. Welch stayed at the scene until police arrived, WBTV added, although a witness said it appeared Welch didn't try to avoid striking the pedestrian.
In a statement after the incident at Comet, Alefantis called out the dangers of fake news. "What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences," he said. "I hope that those involved in fanning these flames will take a moment to contemplate what happened here today, and stop promoting these falsehoods right away."
Welch wasn't the only would-be vigilante to target Comet Pizza.
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Welch, who told The Timesthat he believed that Hillary Clinton had personally murdered children, isn't the only person to target the pizzeria in person. In 2019, Ryan Jaselskis walked into the restaurant and set a curtain on fire. Employees and a customer were able to put out the flames before the fire spread. Jaselskis, who had a history of mental illness, was sentenced to spend four years in prison in April.
The shooting didn't stop someone close to Trump from inflaming the situation.
Shortly after the incident at Comet Ping Pong, Michael Flynn, Jr., the son of Trump's former national security advisor Ret. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, tweeted his support of the conspiracy theory:
The story Michael Jr. shared on Twitter suggests Welch's actions were meant as a "false flag" and will now be leveraged to push for censorship of independent media, according to Politico.
Michael Jr. isn't just Flynn's son, he was his chief of staff and, according to The Washington Post, his closest adviser. But he might be taking after his dad in spreading baseless rumors. The elder Flynn, who led chants of "lock her up" at the Republican National Convention, tweeted a link to a fake news story claiming police in New York had found a link between Clinton, her staff and the child-sex ring.
So why didn't Pizzagate go away?
Many aspects of Pizzagate were eventually folded into the broader QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits that Donald Trump is secretly engineering the downfall of the deep state and its cabal of elite pedophiles. Obviously, non of that is at all true.
But Pizzagate came roaring back in 2020, when the theory, once associated primarily with older Trump supporters, found a new, younger audience on platforms like TikTok. And while the theory has spread, it's become less overtly political, morphing to falsely accuse celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Chrissy Teigen, and brands like Wayfair.
Wait, what does Wayfair have to do with this?
In July, a Reddit user sparked a viral conspiracy theory with a post about, of all things, cabinets being sold by the online furniture retailer Wayfair. The cabinets, which all cost more than $10,000, had been given female names as their product titles on the website. Soon, the theory that Wayfair was trafficking children disguised as furniture was spreading around the internet. Wayfair refuted it by explaining that the items earned their high prices because they are industrial-grade cabinets, and that an algorithm had named the products. Still, that didn't stop believers from doing their signature deranged deep dive into attempting to connect the company to child abuse.
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And because Ellen DeGeneres has a partnership with Wayfair, Pizzagaters decided that she's somehow in on the kid smuggling. Chrissy Teigen attracted the conspiracists' attention after some of her old tweets surfaced, while Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, who took breaks from their late night shows this summer, were interpreted by the Pizzagate-addled as attempting to dodge their involvement in the conspiracy.
So people really take this idea seriously?
New York Times reporter Sheera Frankel said in an interview that pandemic lockdown-induced boredom may be helping to fuel some of the interest in Pizzagate on TikTok. Teens she spoke to said that they'd shared conspiracy videos just because it seemed like fun.
But some, like Welch, take Pizzagate dangerously seriously. At one Trump rally, a woman tearfully told writer Jeff Sharlet that the Clintons literally eat children—there are plenty of true believers. And in 2019, the FBI identified extreme conspiracy theorists as a domestic terrorist threat.
Luckily, some platforms are moving to squash the spread of this viral mythology. Reddit banned its Pizzagate subreddit in 2016 and a QAnon group in 2018. And in July, Twitter purged thousands of QAnon associated accounts, and implemented measures to prevent the amplification of QAnon content. TikTok followed by blocking QAnon hashtags.
It's unclear just how effective this will be in stopping the spread, as conspiracists tend to hop ship for rival platforms in the wake of crackdowns. But hopefully, vigorous moderation can help confine Pizzagate to the margins of the web.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Michael SebastianMichael Sebastian was named editor-in-chief of Esquire in June 2019 where he oversees print and digital content, strategy and operations.
Gabrielle BruneyGabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for Esquire, where she focuses on politics and culture.
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What to Know About Pizzagate, the Fake News Story With Real Consequences
A 28-year-old man was arrested on Sunday for allegedly walking into a Washington, D.C., pizza joint with an assault rifle, saying he wanted to investigate claims that the restaurant was running a pedophile ring from its basement with the help of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Here’s everything to know about Pizzagate—the fake news story that has spun out of control, leading to trolling, protests and now an arrest:
The allegation, which is false, is that Hillary and Bill Clinton used the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C., as a front for a pedophile sex ring; the back room was supposedly used for kidnapping and trafficking children.
How it started
Pizzagate began after James Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong and a notable Democratic donor, was mentioned in Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails, released by WikiLeaks earlier this year. Alefantis, who had previously been in a relationship with David Brock, a Clinton ally, was potentially going to organize a fundraiser for Clinton’s campaign.
Members of the anonymous message board 4Chan, an Internet message board known as a gathering place for those with extreme beliefs and the place the conspiracy theory took hold, began to trawl Alefantis’ social media accounts, citing photos of children, basement construction and letters from Clinton as evidence of purported wrongdoing. Users claimed some words in Alefantis’ emails (for example, “pizza” and “cheese”) were code words for criminal activity.
How it spread
Pizzagate quickly spread to other social media sites including Twitter and Reddit—where a thread called Pizzagate attracted thousands of subscribers (it has since been suspended). The story then began spreading on Facebook and nationalist and fake news websites, ultimately reaching foreign language sites as far away as Saudi Arabia.
Alefantis and his staff have received hundreds of death threats on social media (he’s since made his Instagram account private). He also received a direct message telling him his pizzeria should be “burned to the ground.” The District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department said in a statement that it is “monitoring the situation and aware of general threats being made against this establishment,” Reuters reports.
Protesters also gathered outside the restaurant. In one encounter, they interrogated Alefantis and put the interview on YouTube. “I want to know why there’s a child in bondage [on your Instagram],” one protester said. “That’s my goddaughter, she’s playing with her sister,” he replied. “It’s a cute picture of them playing together. It was published on there 126 weeks ago.”
Edgar Maddison Welch, from Salisbury, N.C., was arrested on Sunday after he allegedly walked into the restaurant and pointed a gun in the direction of a restaurant employee, the Washington Post reports. Welch fired the rifle but the employee managed to escape and there were no injuries. Welch was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon.
Shortly afterward, Alefantis released a statement. “Comet Ping Pong is a beloved institution in Washington,” he wrote on Facebook. “What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences.”
Write to Kate Samuelson at [email protected]
Pizzagate conspiracy theory
"Pizzagate" redirects here. For the pizza-throwing incident at a 2004 association football game between Manchester United and Arsenal, see Battle of the Buffet § "Pizzagate".
"savethechildren" redirects here. For other uses, see Save the Children (disambiguation).
Debunked conspiracy theory about alleged child-sex ring
"Pizzagate" is a debunkedconspiracy theory that went viral during the 2016 United States presidential election cycle. It has been extensively discredited by a wide range of organizations, including the Washington, D.C. police.
In March 2016, the personal email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chair, was hacked in a spear-phishing attack. WikiLeaks published his emails in November 2016. Proponents of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory falsely claimed the emails contained coded messages that connected several high-ranking Democratic Party officials and U.S. restaurants with an alleged human trafficking and child sex ring. One of the establishments allegedly involved was the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C.
Members of the alt-right, conservative journalists, and others who had urged Clinton's prosecution over the emails, spread the conspiracy theory on social media outlets such as 4chan, 8chan, and Twitter. In response, a man from North Carolina traveled to Comet Ping Pong to investigate the conspiracy and fired a rifle inside the restaurant to break the lock on a door to a storage room during his search. The restaurant owner and staff also received death threats from conspiracy theorists.
Pizzagate is generally considered a predecessor to the QAnon conspiracy theory. Pizzagate resurged in 2020, mainly due to QAnon. While initially it was spread by only the far-right, it has since been spread by teens on TikTok "who don't otherwise fit a right-wing conspiracy theorist mold": the biggest Pizzagate spreaders on TikTok appear to otherwise be mostly interested in topics of viral dance moves and Black Lives Matter. The conspiracy theory has developed and become less partisan and political in nature, with less emphasis on Clinton and more on the alleged worldwide elite of child sex-traffickers.
David Goldberg @DavidGoldbergNY
Rumors stirring in the NYPD that Huma's emails point to a pedophila ring and @HillaryClinton is at the center. #GoHillary #PodestaEmails23
On October 30, 2016, a Twitter account posting antisemitic and white supremacist material which said it was run by a Jewish New York lawyer falsely claimed that the New York City Police Department (NYPD) had discovered a pedophilia ring linked to members of the Democratic Party while searching through Anthony Weiner's emails. Throughout October and November 2016, WikiLeaks had published John Podesta's emails. Proponents of the conspiracy theory read the emails and alleged they contained code words for pedophilia and human trafficking. Proponents also claimed that Comet Ping Pong, a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., was a meeting ground for Satanic ritual abuse.
Deriving its name from the Watergate scandal, the story was later posted on fake news websites, starting with Your News Wire, which cited a 4chan post from earlier that year. The Your News Wire article was subsequently spread by pro-Trump websites, including SubjectPolitics.com, which added the claim that the NYPD had raided Hillary Clinton's property. The Conservative Daily Post ran a headline claiming the Federal Bureau of Investigation had confirmed the conspiracy theory.
Spread on social media
According to the BBC, the allegations spread to "the mainstream internet" several days before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, after a Reddit user posted a Pizzagate "evidence" document. The original Reddit post, removed some time between November 4 and 21, alleged the involvement of Comet Ping Pong:
Everyone associated with the business is making semi-overt, semi-tongue-in-cheek, and semi-sarcastic inferences towards sex with minors. The artists that work for and with the business also generate nothing but cultish imagery of disembodiment, blood, beheadings, sex, and of course pizza.
The story was picked up by other fake news websites like InfoWars, Planet Free Will, and The Vigilant Citizen, and was promoted by alt-right activists such as Mike Cernovich, Brittany Pettibone, and Jack Posobiec. Other promoters included: David Seaman, former writer for TheStreet.com,CBS46 anchor Ben Swann, basketball player Andrew Bogut, and Minecraft creator Markus "Notch" Persson. On December 30, as Bogut recovered from a knee injury, members of /r/The Donald community on Reddit promoted a false theory that his injury was connected to his support for Pizzagate. Jonathan Albright, an assistant professor of media analytics at Elon University, said that a disproportionate number of tweets about Pizzagate came from the Czech Republic, Cyprus, and Vietnam, and that some of the most frequent retweeters were bots.
Members of the Reddit community /r/The_Donald created the /r/pizzagate subreddit to further develop the conspiracy theory. The sub was banned on November 23, 2016, for violating Reddit's anti-doxing policy after users posted personal details of people connected to the alleged conspiracy. Reddit released a statement afterwards, saying, "We don't want witchhunts on our site". After the ban on Reddit, the discussion was moved to the v/pizzagate sub on Voat, a website similar to Reddit.
Some of Pizzagate's proponents, including David Seaman and Michael G. Flynn (Michael Flynn's son), evolved the conspiracy into a broader government conspiracy called "Pedogate". According to this theory, a "satanic cabal of elites" of the New World Order operates international child sex trafficking rings.
By June 2020, the conspiracy theory found renewed popularity on TikTok, where videos tagged #Pizzagate were reaching over 80 million views (see relevant section).
Turkish press reports
In Turkey, the allegations were reported by pro-government newspapers (i.e., those supportive of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan), such as Sabah, A Haber, Yeni Şafak, Akşam and Star. The story appeared on Turkey's Ekşi Sözlük website and on the viral news network HaberSelf, where anyone can post content. These forums reposted images and allegations directly from the since-deleted subreddit, which were reprinted in full in the state-controlled press. Efe Sozeri, a columnist for The Daily Dot, suggested Turkish government sources were pushing this story to distract attention from a child abuse scandal there in March 2016.
Harassment of restaurant owners and employees
As Pizzagate spread, Comet Ping Pong received hundreds of threats from the theory's believers. The restaurant's owner, James Alefantis, told The New York Times: "From this insane, fabricated conspiracy theory, we've come under constant assault. I've done nothing for days but try to clean this up and protect my staff and friends from being terrorized."
Some adherents identified the Instagram account of Alefantis and pointed to some of the photos posted there as evidence of the conspiracy. Many of the images shown were friends and family who had liked Comet Ping Pong's page on Facebook. In some cases, imagery was taken from unrelated websites and purported to be Alefantis' own. The restaurant's owners and staff were harassed and threatened on social media websites, and the owner received death threats. The restaurant's Yelp page was locked by the site's operators citing reviews that were "motivated more by the news coverage itself than the reviewer's personal consumer experience".
Several bands who had performed at the pizzeria also faced harassment. For example, Amanda Kleinman of Heavy Breathing deleted her Twitter account after receiving negative comments connecting her and her band to the conspiracy theory. Another band, Sex Stains, had closed the comments of their YouTube videos and addressed the controversy in the description of their videos. The artist Arrington de Dionyso, who once had painted a mural at the pizzeria that had been painted over several years before the controversy, described the campaign of harassment against him in detail, and said of the attacks in general, "I think it's a very deliberate assault, which will eventually be a coordinated assault on all forms of free expression." The affair has drawn comparisons with the Gamergate controversy.
Pizzagate-related harassment of businesses extended beyond Comet Ping Pong to include other nearby D.C. businesses such as Besta Pizza, three doors down from Comet; Little Red Fox cafe; bookstore Politics and Prose; and French bistro, Terasol. These businesses received a high volume of threatening and menacing telephone calls, including death threats, and also experienced online harassment. The co-owners of Little Red Fox and Terasol filed police reports.
Brooklyn restaurant Roberta's was also pulled into the hoax, receiving harassing phone calls, including a call from an unidentified person telling an employee that she was "going to bleed and be tortured". The restaurant became involved after a since-removed YouTube video used images from their social media accounts to imply they were part of the hoax sex ring. Others then spread the accusations on social media, claiming the "Clinton family loves Roberta's".
East Side Pies, in Austin, Texas, saw one of its delivery trucks vandalized with an epithet, and was the target of online harassment related to their supposed involvement in Pizzagate, alleged connections to the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Illuminati.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated Pizzagate-related threats in March 2017 as part of a probe into possible Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections.
On December 4, 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch, a 28-year-old man from Salisbury, North Carolina, arrived at Comet Ping Pong and fired three shots from an AR-15 style rifle that struck the restaurant's walls, a desk, and a door. Welch later told police that he had planned to "self-investigate" the conspiracy theory. Welch saw himself as the potential hero of the story—a rescuer of children. He surrendered after officers surrounded the restaurant and was arrested without incident. No one was injured.
Welch told police he had read online that the Comet restaurant was harboring child sex slaves and that he wanted to see for himself if they were there. In an interview with The New York Times, Welch later said that he regretted how he had handled the situation but did not dismiss the conspiracy theory, and rejected the description of it as "fake news". Some conspiracy theorists speculated the shooting was a staged attempt to discredit their investigations.
On December 13, 2016, Welch was charged with one count of "interstate transportation of a firearm with intent to commit an offense" (a federal crime). According to court documents, Welch attempted to recruit friends three days before the attack by urging them to watch a YouTube video about the conspiracy. He was subsequently charged with two additional offenses, with the grand jury returning an indictment charging him with assault with a dangerous weapon and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.
On March 24, 2017, following a plea agreement with prosecutors, Welch pleaded guilty to the federal charge of interstate transport of firearms and the local District of Columbia charge of assault with a dangerous weapon. Welch also agreed to pay $5,744.33 for damages to the restaurant. U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson sentenced Welch to four years in prison on June 22, 2017; at the sentencing hearing, Welch apologized for his conduct and said he had been "foolish and reckless". On March 3, 2020, Welch was transferred to a Community Corrections Center (CCC) and was released on May 28.
On January 12, 2017, Yusif Lee Jones, a 52-year-old man from Shreveport, Louisiana, pleaded guilty in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana to making a threatening phone call to Besta Pizza, another pizzeria on the same block as Comet Ping Pong, three days after Welch's attack. He said he threatened Besta to "save the kids", and "finish what the other guy didn't".
On January 25, 2019, Comet Ping Pong suffered an arson attack when a fire was started in one of its backrooms. Employees quickly extinguished the blaze and nobody was injured.
The conspiracy theory has been widely discredited and debunked. It has been judged to be false after detailed investigation by the fact-checking website Snopes.com and The New York Times. Numerous news organizations have debunked it as a conspiracy theory, including: the New York Observer,The Washington Post,The Independent in London,The Huffington Post,The Washington Times, the Los Angeles Times,Fox News,CNN, and the Miami Herald. The Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia characterized the matter as "fictitious".
Much of the purported evidence cited by the conspiracy theory's proponents had been taken from entirely different sources and made to appear as if it supported the conspiracy. Images of children of family and friends of the pizzeria's staff were taken from social media sites such as Instagram and claimed to be photos of victims.The Charlotte Observer noted the diverse group of sources that had debunked the conspiracy theory and pointed out that this included the Fox News Channel in addition to The New York Times.
On December 10, 2016, The New York Times published an article that analyzed the theory's claims. They emphasized that:
- Theorists linked the conspiracy to Comet Ping Pong through similarities between company logos and symbols related to Satanism and pedophilia. However, The Times noted similarities were also found in the logos of a number of unrelated companies, such as AOL, Time Warner, and MSN.
- Theorists claimed an underground network beneath Comet Ping Pong; the restaurant has no basement, however, and the picture used to support this claim was taken in another facility.
- Theorists claimed to have a picture of restaurant owner Alefantis wearing a T-shirt endorsing pedophilia. However, the image was of another person, and the shirt, which read "J' ❤ L'Enfant," was actually a reference to the L'Enfant Cafe-Bar in DC, whose owner was pictured in the image, and which itself is named after Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the designer of much of the layout of Washington, D.C.
- Theorists claimed John and Tony Podesta kidnapped Madeleine McCann using police sketches that were, in fact, two sketches of the same suspect taken from the descriptions of two eyewitnesses.
No alleged victims have come forward and no physical evidence has been found.
Community messages in front of Comet Ping Pong following the shooting
In an interview with NPR on November 27, 2016, Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis referred to the conspiracy theory as "an insanely complicated, made-up, fictional lie-based story" and a "coordinated political attack". Syndicated columnist Daniel Ruth wrote that the conspiracy theorists' assertions were "dangerous and damaging false allegations" and that they were "repeatedly debunked, disproved and dismissed".
Despite the conspiracy theory being debunked, it continued to spread on social media, with over one million messages using hashtag #Pizzagate on Twitter in November 2016. Stefanie MacWilliams, who wrote an article promoting the conspiracy on Planet Free Will, was subsequently reported by the Toronto Star as saying, "I really have no regrets and it's honestly really grown our audience". Pizzagate, she said, is "two worlds clashing. People don't trust the mainstream media anymore, but it's true that people shouldn't take the alternative media as truth, either".
On December 8, 2016, Hillary Clinton responded to the conspiracy theory, speaking about the dangers of fake news websites. She said, "The epidemic of malicious fake news and fake propaganda that flooded social media over the past year, it's now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences".
A poll conducted by Public Policy Polling on December 6–7, 2016, asked 1,224 U.S. registered voters if they thought Hillary Clinton was "connected to a child sex ring being run out of a pizzeria in Washington DC". Nine percent of respondents said they believed she was connected, 72% said they did not, and 19% were not sure.
A poll of voters conducted on December 17–20 by The Economist/YouGov asked voters if they believed that "Leaked e-mails from the Clinton campaign talked about pedophilia and human trafficking - 'Pizzagate'." The results showed that 17% of Clinton voters responded "true" while 82% responded "not true"; and 46% of Trump voters responded "true" while 53% responded "not true".
Alex Jones and InfoWars
After the Comet Ping Pong shooting, Alex Jones of InfoWars backed off from the idea that the D.C. pizzeria was the center of the conspiracy. On December 4, InfoWars uploaded a YouTube video that linked Pizzagate to the November 13 death of a sex-worker-rights activist. The video falsely claimed that she had been investigating a link between the Clinton Foundation and human trafficking in Haiti. It speculated she had been murdered in connection with her investigation. According to the activist's former employer, family and friends, her death was in fact a suicide and she was not investigating the Clinton Foundation. By December 14, Infowars had removed two of its three Pizzagate-related videos.
In February 2017, Alefantis' lawyers sent Jones a letter demanding an apology and retraction. Under Texas law, Jones was given a month to comply or be subject to a libel suit. In March 2017, Alex Jones apologized to Alefantis for promulgating the conspiracy theory, saying: "To my knowledge today, neither Mr. Alefantis, nor his restaurant Comet Ping Pong, were involved in any human trafficking as was part of the theories about Pizzagate that were being written about in many media outlets and which we commented upon."
Michael Flynn and Michael Flynn Jr.
In the days leading up to the 2016 election, Michael Flynn, then a top surrogate for Trump and later Trump's National Security Advisor, posted multiple tweets on Twitter containing conspiratorial material regarding Hillary Clinton. They alleged that Clinton's campaign manager, John Podesta, drank the blood and bodily fluids of other humans in Satanic rituals, which Politico says "soon morphed into the '#pizzagate' conspiracy theory involving Comet Ping Pong". On November 2, 2016, Flynn tweeted a link to a story with unfounded accusations and wrote, "U decide – NYPD Blows Whistle on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc ... MUST READ!" The tweet was shared by over 9,000 people, but was deleted from Flynn's account sometime during December 12–13, 2016.
After the shooting incident at Comet Ping Pong, Michael Flynn Jr., Michael T. Flynn's son and also a member of Trump's transition team, tweeted: "Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it'll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many 'coincidences' tied to it." On December 6, 2016, Flynn Jr. was forced out of Trump's transition team. Spokesman Jason Miller did not identify the reason for his dismissal, however, The New York Times reported that other officials had confirmed it was related to the tweet.
Global spread and merger with QAnon
In 2020, Pizzagate became a pillar of the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory and less U.S.-centric in nature, with videos and posts on the topic in Italy, Brazil, Turkey and other countries worldwide each gaining millions of views. This new iteration is less partisan; the majority of the (mostly teenage) promoters of the #PizzaGate hashtag on TikTok were not right-wing, and support the Black Lives Matter movement. It focuses on an alleged global elite of child sex-traffickers, ranging from politicians to powerful businesspeople and celebrities such as Bill Gates, Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey and Chrissy Teigen.Justin Bieber's 2020 song "Yummy" was alleged to be about the conspiracy theory, and rekindled support for the theory during the year. The conspiracy theory gained traction when Venezuelan YouTuber, Dross Rotzank, made a video about Bieber's music video and its alleged references to Pizzagate. Rotzank's video gained 3 million views in two days and led "Pizzagate" to become a trending topic on the Spanish-language Twitter. Adherents of the theory also believe that Bieber gave a coded signal admitting as such in a later Instagram Live video, where he touched his hat after being asked to do so in the chat if he was a victim of Pizzagate (however, there is no indication that Bieber saw this comment).
In April 2020, a documentary promoting Pizzagate, Out of Shadows, was made by a former Hollywood stuntman and released on YouTube. TikTok users began promoting both Out of the Shadows and the alleged Bieber association until the #PizzaGate hashtag was banned by the company.The New York Times said in June 2020 that posts on the platform with the #PizzaGate hashtag were "viewed more than 82 million times in recent months", and Google searches for the term also increased in that time. They also reported that "In the first week of June, comments, likes and shares of PizzaGate also spiked to more than 800,000 on Facebook and nearly 600,000 on Instagram, according to data from CrowdTangle ... That compares with 512,000 interactions on Facebook and 93,000 on Instagram during the first week of December 2016. From the start of 2017 through January of 2020, the average number of weekly PizzaGate mentions, likes and shares on Facebook and Instagram was under 20,000".
In August 2020, Facebook temporarily suspended use of the "#savethechildren" hashtag, when used to promote elements of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory and QAnon (see QAnon#Usage of #SaveTheChildren and Freedom for the Children). The same month, the movie Duncan was released, inspired by Edgar Maddison Welch's shooting of Comet Ping Pong.
A related conspiracy theory known as "Frazzledrip" emerged in 2018, falsely claiming that an "extreme snuff film" was recovered from Anthony Weiner's stolen laptop and was circulating on the dark web, and showed Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin raping and murdering a young girl, drinking her adrenochrome-rich blood in a Satanic ritual, and "tak[ing] turns wearing the little girl's face like a mask". Hundreds of videos on YouTube promulgated these false statements, and the claims were still circulating internationally within QAnon groups two years later in 2020.
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Anatomy of a Fake News Scandal
This story was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Additional reporting: Aaron Sankin, Laura Starecheski, Michael Corey, Jaime Longoria and Jasper Craven.
The revelations overcame Edgar Maddison Welch like a hallucinatory fever. On December 1st, 2016, the father of two from Salisbury, North Carolina, a man whose pastimes included playing Pictionary with his family, tried to persuade two friends to join a rescue mission. Alex Jones, the Info-Wars host, was reporting that Hillary Clinton was sexually abusing children in satanic rituals a few hundred miles north, in the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant. Welch told his friends the “raid” on a “pedo ring” might require them to “sacrifice the lives of a few for the lives of many.” A friend texted, “Sounds like we r freeing some oppressed pizza from the hands of an evil pizza joint.” Welch was undeterred. Three days later, armed with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, a .38 handgun and a folding knife, he strolled into the restaurant and headed toward the back, where children were playing ping-pong. As waitstaff went table to table, whispering to customers to get out, Welch maneuvered into the restaurant’s kitchen. He shot open a lock and found cooking supplies. He whipped open another door and found an employee bringing in fresh pizza dough. Welch did not find any captive children – Comet Ping Pong does not even have a basement – but he did prove, if there were any lingering doubts after the election, that fake news has real consequences.
Welch’s arrest was the culmination of an election cycle dominated by fake news – and by attacks on the legitimate press. Several media outlets quickly traced the contours of what became known as Pizzagate: The claim that Hillary Clinton was a pedophile started in a Facebook post, spread to Twitter and then went viral with the help of far-right platforms like Breitbart and Info-Wars. But it was unclear whether Pizzagate was mass hysteria or the work of politicos with real resources and agendas. It took the better part of a year (and two teams of researchers) to sift through the digital trail. We found ordinary people, online activists, bots, foreign agents and domestic political operatives. Many of them were associates of the Trump campaign. Others had ties with Russia. Working together – though often unwittingly – they flourished in a new “post-truth” information ecosystem, a space where false claims are defended as absolute facts. What’s different about Pizzagate, says Samuel Woolley, a leading expert in computational propaganda, is it was “retweeted and picked up by some of the most powerful faces of American politics.”
The original Pizzagate Facebook post appeared on the evening of October 29th, 2016, a day after then-FBI Director James Comey announced that the bureau would be reopening its investigation into Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state. Data from the server had been found on electronics belonging to former Rep. Anthony Weiner (the husband of Clinton’s close aide Huma Abedin), who had been caught texting lewd messages to a 15-year-old. On Facebook, a user named Carmen Katz wrote, “My NYPD source said its much more vile and serious than classified material on Weiner’s device. The email DETAIL the trips made by Weiner, Bill and Hillary on their pedophile billionaire friend’s plane, the Lolita Express. Yup, Hillary has a well documented predilection for underage girls. . . . We’re talking an international child enslavement and sex ring.”
Katz’s Facebook profile listed her residence as Joplin, Missouri. With a link to a story headlined “Breaking: Hillary Clinton strategy memo leaked: ‘Steal yard signs,’ ” Katz posted, “You know how we handle yard sign theft or tampering in South Missouri? With a 3 prong garden hoe buried in the middle of the back.” We found no record of anyone with the name Carmen Katz in the entire state. But searching through her online activity, we noticed another clue: Every time she posted petitions on Change.org, such as “Put Donald Trump’s Face on Mount Rushmore,” the last signer was invariably Cynthia Campbell of Joplin. Campbell used the same profile picture as “Carmen Katz” on Facebook – that is, the same snapshot of the same cat.
For more than 20 years, a 60-year-old attorney named Cynthia Campbell has practiced law out of her bungalow-style home in Joplin. In April, I began trying to contact her, asking if she was behind the initial Pizzagate post. Within days, the Carmen Katz Facebook account disappeared. I went to Campbell’s house to try in person. A large NRA sticker adorned the screen door; on the porch was feline statuary and gardening equipment, including a three-pronged hoe. She didn’t answer but later texted and called me. Campbell said yes, she set up the Facebook account, but it was hacked two or three years ago. She never explicitly denied posting the comment that started Pizzagate. Instead, she told me to disregard the NRA sticker – she just “supports hunting.” She also claimed to be a rare Democrat in southwest Missouri. “You don’t say much,” she said. “You don’t stick signs out.”
Social-media accounts are routinely- hacked, but the next morning, when Campbell texted me 21 times, she sounded every bit like the user behind the original Carmen Katz post. “Stalking and harassing innocent people who have done nothing to you is wrong, evil and illegal,” she wrote. “You should be helping people get their lives and health back going through such nightmares, not piling on, harassing them, making them feel unsafe and preyed upon.” She threatened to report me to both the ACLU and Best Buy’s Geek Squad.
“[P]eople like you don’t give a shit that you destroy innocent humans’ lives,” she said. “Go back to your soul-sucking job. . . . You are fake news!”
It strains the imagination to think how Campbell – a cat lady in Missouri – had pieced together not only the story that Clinton was a sex-trafficking pedophile, but its details: NYPD officials, Weiner’s laptop, Jeffrey Epstein’s private jet. According to Clint Watts, a cyber and homeland-security expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Katz fits neatly into a well-worn blueprint for disinformation campaigns. For a story to gain traction, propagandists plant false information on anonymous chat boards, hoping real people will pick it up and add a “human touch” to acts of digital manipulation. “If you want to sow a conspiracy, you seed it someplace – 4chan or Reddit is a perfect vehicle,” he says, and wait for someone like Katz to take the bait. “Someone or some group,” Watts says, “possibly took this unwitting woman and made her the source that they need.”
On a pair of anonymous message boards, we found several possible seeds of Pizzagate. On July 2nd, 2016, someone calling himself FBIAnon, who claimed to be a “high-level analyst and strategist” for the bureau, hosted an Ask Me Anything forum on 4chan. He claimed to be leaking government secrets – á la Edward Snowden – out of a love for country, but it wasn’t always clear which country he meant. At various times, he wrote, “Russia is more a paragon of freedom and nationalism than any other country” and “We are the aggressors against Russia.” FBIAnon’s secrets were about the Department of Justice’s inquiry into the Clinton Foundation, which federal prosecutors never formalized. “Dig deep,” he wrote. “Bill and Hillary love foreign donors so much. They get paid in children as well as money.”
“Does Hillary have sex with kidnapped girls?” a 4channer asked.
“Yes,” FBIAnon answered.
Another possible germ of Pizzagate appeared online about 10 hours before Katz posted her story on Facebook. TheeRANT describes itself as a message board for “New York City cops speaking their minds.” Virtually everyone on the site uses an identity-masking screen name. Favorite topics include police body cameras (bad) and George Soros (worse). On October 29th, 2016, someone calling himself “Fatoldman” posted that he had a “hot rumor” about the FBI investigation.
“[T]he feds were forced to reopen the hillary email case [because] apparently the NYPD sex crimes unit was involved in the weiner case,” Fatoldman wrote. “On his laptop they saw emails. [T]hey notified the FBI. Feds were afraid that NYPD would go public so they had to reopen or be accused of a coverup.”
Someone posted the news to a law enforcement Facebook group. From there, a user called Eagle Wings (@NIVIsa4031) posted it to Twitter. Eagle Wings’ profile picture shows a smiling middle-aged woman above the description “USAF Vet believes Freedom Soars.” Among her more influential followers are former deputy assistant to President Trump Sebastian Gorka and former national security adviser Gen. Michael Flynn, who actually shared a separate Eagle- Wings tweet last year. Eagle Wings’ enthusiastic following likely has something to do with membership in “Trumps WarRoom,” a private group of online activists who share and amplify political messages. Participants told Politico’s Shawn Musgrave that hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of pro-Trump rooms coalesced during the campaign. “The members aren’t stereotypical trolls,” Musgrave tells me. “Most are baby boomers.” A lot are women from the Midwest.
But Eagle Wings is not a typical political enthusiast, says Woolley, who directs research at the Institute for the Future’s Digital Intelligence Lab. She tweets too often (more than 50,000 times since November 2015) to too many followers (120,000 as of November 2017). “Without a shadow of a doubt,” he says, “Eagle Wings is a highly automated account [and] part of a bot network” – a centrally controlled group of social-media accounts. To explain how they work, Ben Nimmo, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, uses a shepherding analogy. “A message that someone or some organization wants to ‘trend’ is typically sent out by ‘shepherd’ accounts,” he says, which often have large followings and are controlled by humans. The shepherds’ messages are amplified by ‘sheepdog’ accounts, which are also run by humans but can be default-set “to boost the signal and harass critics.” At times, the shepherds personally steer conversations, but they also deploy automation, using a kind of Twitter cruise control to retweet particular keywords and hashtags. Together, Nimmo says, the shepherds and sheepdogs guide a herd of bots, which “mindlessly repost content in the digital equivalent of sheep rushing in the same direction and bleating loudly.”
Whether Katz repeated something a herd of bots was bleating, or repackaged tidbits found on other parts of the Internet, her Facebook post was the “human touch” that helped the fake news story go viral. The “tell,” says Watts, was what happened next. Most of us post into Internet oblivion. But about 12 hours after Katz shared her story, a Twitter user named @DavidGoldbergNY tweeted a screenshot of her post, twice – adding, “I have been hearing the same thing from my NYPD buddies too. Next couple days will be -interesting!”
On Twitter, @DavidGoldbergNY described himself as a “Jew, Lawyer & New Yorker.” The account went live around the time of the Republican National Convention, in July 2016, posting divisive tweets like “Attacking the 1 percent is attacking 43 percent of the Jewish community.” The account’s profile picture – a man with a nose Photoshopped to look very large and hooked – has been used online for more than a decade. Based on the limited threads that have been archived, Woolley says, @DavidGoldbergNY appears to have been, like Eagle Wings, “highly automated” and part of “an organized effort” – possibly a bot network – to spread disinformation. One of @DavidGoldbergNY’s tweets about the Katz Facebook post was retweeted 6,369 times.
What’s nearly impossible to tell is who ran @DavidGoldbergNY. The handle is not among the 2,752 Twitter accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a disinformation shop run by the Kremlin, which the House Intelligence Committee released in November. And Twitter has yet to make public the handles of an additional 36,746 bot accounts its attorney Sean Edgett told Congress have “characteristics we used to associate an account with Russia.” In any case, Russia is not the only one playing this game. “We’ve also had sources tell us that using bot networks has become a common practice among U.S. political campaigns,” says Woolley, a practice that is difficult to trace. “They do it with subcontractors,” he explains. “And the Federal Election Commission doesn’t require reporting for subcontractors.” One thing that does stand out, he adds, is “the more sophisticated bot nets, the ones that are successful at spreading stories, are built by people with a lot of resources. In our experience, across multiple different countries, the people that have deep pockets are the powerful political actors.”
According to a sample of tweets with Pizzagate or related hashtags provided by Filippo Menczer, a professor of informatics at Indiana University, Pizzagate was shared roughly 1.4 million times by more than a quarter of a million accounts in its first five weeks of life – from @DavidGoldbergNY’s tweet to the day Welch showed up at Comet Ping Pong. The vast majority of tweeters in our sample, just 10 percent of all possible hits, posted about the story only a few times. But more than 3,000 accounts in our set tweeted about Pizzagate five times or more. Among these were dozens of users who tweet so frequently – up to 900 times a day – that experts believe they were likely highly automated. Even more striking: 22 percent of the tweets in our sample were later deleted by the user. This could be a sign, Woolley says, of “someone sweeping away everything so that we can’t follow the trail.”
Next, we decided to cross-reference the most frequent Pizzagate tweeters with a list of 139 handles associated with Trump campaign staffers, advisers and surrogates. We also ran our entire sample against the list of accounts linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency. We found that at least 14 Russia-linked accounts had tweeted about Pizzagate, including @Pamela_Moore13, whose avatar is, aptly, an anonymous figure wrapped in an American flag; that account has been retweeted by such prominent Trump supporters as Donald Trump Jr., Ann Coulter and Roger Stone, the political operative who recommended Paul Manafort as Trump’s campaign manager. (Special Counsel Robert Mueller recently indicted Manafort for money laundering as part of his investigation into possible collusion with Russian efforts to influence the presidential race.) “Well! Well! Well!” “Pamela Moore” tweeted on November 19th, 2016, above the fake news headline “FBI: Rumors About Clinton Pedophile Ring Are True.”
The campaign’s engagement went far deeper. We found at least 66 Trump campaign figures who followed one or more of the most prolific Pizzagate tweeters. Michael Caputo, a Trump adviser who tweeted frequently about Clinton’s e-mails, followed 146 of these accounts; Corey Stewart, Trump’s campaign chair in Virginia, who lost a tight primary race for governor in June, followed 115; Paula White-Cain, Trump’s spiritual adviser, followed 71; Pastor Darrell Scott, a prominent member of Trump’s National Diversity Coalition, followed 33. Flynn’s son, Michael Flynn Jr., who followed 58 of these accounts, famously took the bait and was ousted from the Trump transition team in early December after tweeting, “Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story.”
Many of the Pizzagate tweeters had the characteristics of political bots – Twitter handles made up of random or semi-random letters and numbers and twin passions for conservative politics and pets (puppies and kitties win audience, Watts says). Others were all too human. Crystal Kemp, a 50-year-old grandmother who lives in Confluence, Pennsylvania, tweeted about the story more than 4,000 times in five weeks. I reached out to her via Facebook to ask why. “Didn’t want Hillary to win at any cost,” Kemp tells me, “but liked Trump from day one. I don’t really know that much about the Pizzagate thing. Everything I tweeted or retweeted was stuff that I found through my own research or from another follower.”
Kemp tweeted links to articles from well-known right-wing sites like Fox News and Breitbart. But she also shared stories from obscure outlets like ConservativeDailyPost.com, which appears to be among the fake-news sites that operated from Macedonia during the election. Buzzfeed had found that teenagers in the deindustrialized town of Veles published pro-Trump stories because they were profitable as click-bait. When I traveled to Macedonia last summer, Borce Pejcev, a computer programmer who has set up dozens of fake-news sites – for around 100 euros each – said it wasn’t quite that simple. Macedonians don’t invent fake news stories, he told me. “No one here knows anything about American politics. They copy and paste from American sites, maybe try to come up with more dramatic headline.” Fox News, TruePundit.com, DailyCaller.com, InfoWars and Breitbart, he said, were among the Macedonians’ most common source material (“Breit-bart was best”). Macedonians would’ve happily copied anti-Trump fake news too, he said. “Unfortunately, there weren’t any good U.S. pro-Clinton fake-news sites to copy and paste.”
That was exactly how the right-wing-media ecosystem worked during the 2016 campaign, explains Yochai Benkler, who directs the Berkman-Klein Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard. After the election, he and his colleagues mapped about 2 million campaign-news stories. He found that far-right-media outlets were organized extremely tightly around Breitbart and, to a lesser degree, FoxNews.com. “The right paid attention to right-wing sites, and the more right-wing they were, the more attention they got,” Benkler says. More extreme sites would distort and exaggerate the claims, but they would use a “relatively- credible source” such as Breitbart as a validator. “Because they were repeated not only on the very far-fringe sites but also by sites that are at the center of this cluster, the right-wing disinformation circulated and amplified very quickly.”
Douglas Hagmann is a self-employed private investigator and host of HagmannReport.com, a webcast that exposes the “New World Order agenda.” It was Hagmann who – four days after Carmen Katz first posted the story and six days before Election Day – brought Pizzagate from social media to fake news’ largest stage. On the November 2nd broadcast of InfoWars, arguably the most influential conspiracy-theory outlet in the country, with 7.7 million unique visitors to its website a month, Alex Jones asked Hagmann to tell his audience what sources had revealed about the e-mails recovered on Weiner’s computer. “[T]he most disgusting aspect of this is the sexual angle,” Hagmann said. “I don’t want to be graphic or gross here. . . . Based on my source, Hillary did in fact participate on some of the junkets on the Lolita Express.”
The story took off. Google Trends measures interest in topics among the 1.17 billion users of its search engine on a 0-100 scale. On October 29th, the day Katz posted the story on Facebook, searches for “Hillary” and “pedophile” ranked zero. Ninety-six hours later, when Hagmann “broke” the story on InfoWars, they scored 100.
In April, Hagmann agreed to meet with me for a look at his “courtroom-ready” documents on Pizzagate. His split-level home in Erie, Pennsylvania, is on a quiet leafy street. In the front yard, there’s a small waterfall, a rock garden and a large sign warning that the place is under surveillance. He greeted me in the foyer wearing a suit and tie, his hair slicked back with Brylcreem, and led the way downstairs to his basement broadcast center.
In October 2016, Hagmann claimed, he “communicated” with a friend who knows someone affiliated with the NYPD. The friend of the friend had been on the “task force” that secured Weiner’s computer and had copied documents onto a thumb drive “proving” Clinton and her associates were involved in pedophilia. “Now, I can’t get him to give me the thumb drive,” he said. “Or even admit to the fact that he had it.” When I asked how he knew the files existed, he said, “I trust my source.”
Hagmann then launched into a synopsis of three decades of rumors that Clinton and her associates are lesbians and perverts. He started with the claims of Cathy O’Brien, a conspiracy theorist from Muskegon, Michigan, who alleged that while held as a CIA sex slave, she was forced to service Hillary Clinton. Hagmann moved on to Clinton’s “close” relationship with Weiner’s estranged wife, and the allegation that her campaign manager, John Podesta, and his brother Tony resemble sketches of the suspects in the 2007 disappearance of four-year-old Madeleine McCann in Portugal. “Sorry,” Hagmann stopped himself. “I know this case is difficult. Circumstantial.”
When I asked if he had verified anything, Hagmann shuffled some papers, lifting one sheet by a corner, like a poker player. With apparent reluctance, he turned over a color copy of an image showing a clean, uninjured boy wearing a green T-shirt in a dog cage. The child could have been playing or held hostage. “That might be a disturbing image,” I said. “But I don’t see what it has to do with Hillary Clinton.” He shrugged. “You could say I have dog crap for answers and dog crap for sources,” he said, adding later, “I hope you don’t think this was a waste.”
The following month, at Awaken to the Shakin’, a Bible conference in Gurnee, Illinois, Hagmann presented his evidence to an audience of about 40 middle-aged churchgoers. His courtroom-ready exhibits included the Wikipedia entry for “fake news,” the New Oxford Dictionary definition of “post-truth,” a quote by John Wayne, a photo of people sitting on a couch wearing horse masks, a photo of scars on the fingers of John Podesta. And the kicker – a photo of a decapitated body that Hagmann said was a victim of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and another of a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois in Tony Podesta’s home, ironically titled “The Arch of Hysteria.” The two images, he said, are shockingly similar.
All the same, two days after Hagmann’s appearance on InfoWars, Erik Prince, the brother of Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, “confirmed” that the terrible rumor was true in an interview on Breitbart. Prince is best known as the founder of the private military company Blackwater USA, whose mercenaries shot and killed 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007. He donated $250,000 to the Trump campaign and became an informal adviser on intelligence and security issues, traveling to the Seychelles during the transition to meet with a Kremlin associate in an attempt to create back-channel communications between Moscow and the president-elect. On Breitbart radio, Prince painted a picture sure to stir the far right. “Because of Weinergate and the sexting scandal, the NYPD started investigating,” he said. “They found a lot of other really damning criminal information, including money-laundering, including the fact that Hillary went to this sex island with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Bill Clinton went there more than 20 times. Hillary Clinton went there at least six times.”
The right-wing-media system went into overdrive. Prince’s story was picked up and embellished by other right-wing outlets, and made its way back to InfoWars that afternoon. Citing Prince’s interview, Jones fumed, “When I think about all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped . . . yeah, you heard me right. Hillary Clinton has personally murdered children.” Jones’ video was viewed on YouTube more than 427,000 times. Prince’s interview was shared another 81,000 times. On Twitter, the numbers were increasing exponentially- – 300 percent in just six days.
Long before October 28th, 2016, when Comey wrote to Congress that the FBI would be reexamining Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server, her campaign knew they had a huge e-mail problem. In focus groups, voters conflated the case with the e-mails Russian operatives had hacked from the Democratic National Committee and Podesta, her campaign manager. Though U.S. intelligence agencies now agree that a Kremlin–associated group, Fancy Bear, hacked the e-mails – which WikiLeaks began posting less than an hour after The Washington Post published Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” video – a senior Clinton campaign staffer tells me, “There was just more voyeuristic interest in the content of the e-mails than in how they were obtained.”
The confusion was encouraged online by the likes of @DavidGoldbergNY. The e-mails on Weiner’s laptop had nothing to do with Podesta’s Gmail account, but one of his tweets of the Katz post included #podestaemails23. “That hashtag is a flag,” Woolley says. “It suggests that @DavidGoldbergNY is attempting to get people to look at something.” On message boards, amateur sleuths searched for encoded evidence in the Podesta e-mails. A particular source of fascination was an invitation from the performance artist Marina Abramovic for Podesta to attend a “Spirit Cooking dinner.” Allegations started circulating that Clinton consumed semen, breast milk and menstrual blood.
The story still hadn’t penetrated Clinton’s campaign headquarters. They’d become inured to the avalanche of fake news – the rumors that she was on her deathbed, funding ISIS, even dissed by the pope. But when a Clinton campaign staffer noticed “Podesta Spirit Cooking Emails Reveal Clinton’s Inner Circle as Sex Cult with Connections to Human Trafficking” on DangerandPlay.com become “Podesta Practices Occult Magic” on the Drudge Report, and then saw Alex Jones shouting that Clinton “is an abject, psychopathic demon from hell,” who “smell[s] like sulfur,” he went straight into Podesta’s office at the campaign’s Brooklyn headquarters. “You’re not going to believe it,” the aide told him. “Now you’re a fucking witch.”
It got even weirder after users on 8chan read a Podesta e-mail that revealed that Democratic activist David Brock had dated the owner of Comet Ping Pong pizzeria, James Alefantis. The citizen investigators considered Brock their archenemy – he’d founded Correct the Record, a Super PAC that defended Clinton against defamation by online trolls. Suddenly, they saw sinister meaning in any mention of pizza; for instance, the first letters in the words “cheese pizza” are the same as in “child porn.”
Until November 2016, the Pizzagate hashtag had mostly referred to Trump’s use of a fork and knife to eat pizza. But on November 4th, two days after Hagmann’s appearance on InfoWars, Cassandra Fairbanks, then a reporter for Sputnik News (which U.S. intelligence says spreads Kremlin-directed- disinformation), tweeted, “I’ve literally spent the last hour wondering if podesta ingested sperm mixed with breast milk with his brother.” In response, another user, @GodlessNZ, appears to have launched the hashtag: “Tweets assembling under #JohnMolesta and maybe #PizzaGate.”
That day, Alefantis got a phone call from a reporter at The Washington City Paper seeking a comment about a rumor going viral on Reddit. “What’s Reddit?” Alefantis asked.
It was just beginning. Even as the election came and went, several Twitter accounts tweeted exclusively about Pizzagate to a number of alt-right “influencers” – among them InfoWars and Brittany Pettibone, one of a handful of alt-right “girls” who regularly appear at the movement’s events. At least one single-minded account, @Pizza_Gate, likely caught the attention of Mehmet Ali Önel, a Turkish TV anchor. The network Önel works for is linked to the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoan, which was facing international condemnation (including from the Obama State Department) for proposing a law that would risk decriminalizing pedophilia for offenders who married their victims. Önel, who has 196,000 Twitter followers, was one of dozens of Turkish commentators who claimed Americans had no right calling out Turkey for sex crimes with Pizzagate erupting in their own capital. One of the most shared Pizzagate tweets was posted by the anchor on November 16th. Roughly translated, it reads, “USA #PizzaGate shaken by the pedophilia scandals.”
Among the users who picked up the thread was Jack Posobiec, a well-known alt-right troll whom Trump himself has retweeted. During the campaign, Posobiec was special-projects director for Citizens for Trump, a never-officially-organized voter-fraud prevention group. Several hours after Önel sent his November 16th tweet, Posobiec went to investigate Comet Ping Pong and another nearby pizzeria. Live-streaming the visit on Periscope, he described evidence of “what’s really going on” – a double pane of glass near an oven, security cameras, a texting cashier. Posobiec paused, worrying his viewers might not understand the situation. “It’s like in the movie Jurassic Park,” he said. “Nedry had the shaving cream bottle. And you could press the top and a little bit of shaving cream came out. . . . The bottom part is where they had the dinosaur embryos.”
The Twittersphere went wild. The previous day, our sample indicates there were roughly 6,000 tweets about Pizzagate. Now, it was closer to 55,000. Alefantis tried and failed to get Facebook and Twitter to remove the posts. (Both companies declined to comment for this story.) When the restaurant started getting death threats, Alefantis called the police, then the FBI, and got nowhere. “It turns out you can say anything about anyone online,” he says. “It’s your First Amendment right to terrorize.”
Alefantis thought he’d finally scored a victory when The New York Times published an article debunking Pizzagate. He learned what the Clinton campaign found out too late. As Harvard’s Benkler puts it, “The right-wing-media ecosystem had become so hyperpartisan, so self-referential and so superinsular it often simply ignored information that’s disconfirming.” Instead, right-wing social media referenced mainstream coverage as a way to “legitimate” their claims. On November 21st, the day the Times published its story, our sample shows Twitter traffic about Pizzagate hit unprecedented levels: some 120,000 tweets.
Trolls on message boards began posting whole “dossiers” of private information about Comet Ping Pong employees and top Democrats, down to the movies that Podesta ordered on Netflix. On November 22nd, when Reddit banned a Pizzagate subreddit for posting obviously stolen private information, a moderator responded, “We have all made life insurance videos. We have all vowed to continue this fight. You have only increased our number. This morning we were numerous, tonight we are legion.” About 145,000 tweets flew that day.
The next day, InfoWars posted a video called “Pizzagate Is Real.” On November 27th, Jones spent a half-hour explaining the story. “Something’s being covered up,” he told his audience. “All I know is, God help us, we’re in the hands of pure evil.” Hours later, he released another video, “Down the #Pizzagate Rabbit Hole.” On December 1st, the show posted “Pizzagate: The Bigger Picture.” In North Carolina, Edgar Maddison Welch was obsessively watching much of this coverage. By the evening of December 4th, he was in solitary confinement in a Washington, D.C., jail.
Nearly a year after the election, in three separate hearings with members of Congress, executives from Twitter, Facebook and Google took turns expressing contrition for hosting Russia’s attempts to manipulate U.S. public opinion. A Facebook vice president said it “pains us as a company” that foreign actors “abused our platform.” Twitter’s general counsel said he too was “troubled” that the power of Twitter was misused.
“There was this concept of ‘Social media is going to save democracy,’ ” Woolley tells me. “Twitter didn’t envision that powerful political actors were going to use social media in attempts to spread propaganda.” Among the many strange aspects of Pizzagate was the fact that the story went viral after the election. All of the Russia-linked tweets we found were sent after November 8th. Bot networks appear to be tweeting out the hashtag to this day. Woolley suggests it could be an attempt to “bolster” Trump’s position, to “win over people’s hearts and minds.” Clinton had lost the presidency, he says, but “she was not done in terms of her ability to be a representative of democratic ideals, or of the ideals that were oppositional to Donald Trump.”
Watts, the cyber-security expert, doesn’t know if Russia and the Trump campaign colluded on Pizzagate, or anything else. But both camps were clearly opportunistic. “You can’t say that there was no indigenous support,” he says. “The Russians don’t create this whole [alt-right] movement. They just harness it.” Of course, so did Trump. But Watts believes the Russians, at least, are playing for much higher stakes than one presidential election. “The goal is to create division between communities,” he says. “It is making you not trust the state. It’s eroding the mandate of elected officials so that they can’t govern properly. It’s making people want to not participate in democracy because they think it’s corrupt. It’s getting you to either believe that it’s all stacked against you or you just opt out altogether because you don’t know what to believe. When you don’t know what to believe, you’ll believe anything.”
To learn more about how #Pizzagate spread, tune in to Reveal, distributed by PRX. Download the episode at revealnews.org/podcast starting Nov. 18.
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‘PizzaGate’ Conspiracy Theory Thrives Anew in the TikTok Era
The false theory targeting Democrats, now fueled by QAnon and teenagers on TikTok, is entangling new targets like Justin Bieber.
WASHINGTON — Four minutes into a video that was posted on Instagram last month, Justin Bieber leaned into the camera and adjusted the front of his black knit beanie. For some of his 130 million followers, it was a signal.
In the video, someone had posted a comment asking Mr. Bieber to touch his hat if he had been a victim of a child-trafficking ring known as PizzaGate. Thousands of comments were flooding in, and there was no evidence that Mr. Bieber had seen that message. But the pop star’s innocuous gesture set off a flurry of online activity, which highlighted the resurgence of one of social media’s early conspiracy theories.
Viewers quickly uploaded hundreds of videos online analyzing Mr. Bieber’s action. The videos were translated into Spanish, Portuguese and other languages, amassing millions of views. Fans then left thousands of comments on Mr. Bieber’s social media posts asking him if he was safe. Within days, searches for “Justin and PizzaGate” soared on Google, and the hashtag #savebieber started trending.
Four years ago, ahead of the 2016 presidential election, the baseless notion that Hillary Clinton and Democratic elites were running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a Washington pizzeria spread across the internet, illustrating how a crackpot idea with no truth to it could blossom on social media — and how dangerous it could be. In December 2016, a vigilante gunman showed up at the restaurant with an assault rifle and opened fire into a closet.
In the years afterward, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube managed to largely suppress PizzaGate. But now, just months before the next presidential election, the conspiracy theory is making a comeback on these platforms — and on new ones such as TikTok — underlining the limits of their efforts to stamp out dangerous speech online and how little has changed despite rising public frustration.
This time, PizzaGate is being fueled by a younger generation that is active on TikTok, which was in its infancy four years ago, as well as on other social media platforms. The conspiracy group QAnon is also promoting PizzaGate in private Facebook groups and creating easy-to-share memes on it.
Driven by these new elements, the theory has morphed. PizzaGate no longer focuses on Mrs. Clinton and has taken on less of a political bent. Its new targets and victims are a broader assortment of powerful businesspeople, politicians and celebrities, including Mr. Bieber, Bill Gates, Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey and Chrissy Teigen, who are lumped together as part of the global elite. For groups like QAnon, PizzaGate has become a convenient way to foment discontent.
The theory has also gone global. While it previously found traction mainly in the United States, videos and posts about it have racked up millions of views in Italy, Brazil and Turkey.
“PizzaGate never went away because it encompasses very potent forces,” including children’s safety and the power of elites, said Alice Marwick, a disinformation expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “But now there is so much scaffolding from people who have researched it, it wasn’t hard for others to pick up from there.”
PizzaGate is reaching a level that nearly exceeds its 2016 fever pitch, according to an analysis by The New York Times. TikTok posts with the #PizzaGate hashtag have been viewed more than 82 million times in recent months. Google searches for PizzaGate have skyrocketed.
In the first week of June, comments, likes and shares of PizzaGate also spiked to more than 800,000 on Facebook and nearly 600,000 on Instagram, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned tool for analyzing social interactions. That compares with 512,000 interactions on Facebook and 93,000 on Instagram during the first week of December 2016. From the start of 2017 through January this year, the average number of weekly PizzaGate mentions, likes and shares on Facebook and Instagram was under 20,000, according to The Times’s analysis.
The conspiracy has regained momentum even as its original targets — Mrs. Clinton, her top aides and a Washington pizzeria, Comet Ping Pong — are still dealing with the fallout.
Hateful comments have recently surged on the Facebook page and Yelp and Google review pages for Comet Ping Pong, where the child trafficking supposedly happened. The pizzeria’s owner, James Alefantis, said he had received fresh death threats that caused the Federal Bureau of Investigation to open a new investigation two months ago. The F.B.I. said Friday that it could not confirm the existence of an investigation.
“There are no real options for someone like me. I don’t have the names or numbers for people to call at Google or TikTok,” Mr. Alefantis said. “But I don’t want to be that person who lives their life in fear.”
Representatives for Mr. Bieber didn’t respond to requests for comment.
PizzaGate was born in 2016 in online forums like 4chan and Reddit, where right-wing users and supporters of Donald J. Trump pored over hacked emails from John D. Podesta, Mrs. Clinton’s senior campaign adviser, looking for evidence of wrongdoing. Some emails referring to Mr. Podesta’s dinner plans mentioned pizza. A 4chan participant then connected the phrase “cheese pizza” to pedophiles, who on chat boards use the initials “c.p.” to denote child pornography.
Mr. Alefantis, who is friends with Mr. Podesta’s brother, Tony, was mentioned in several of the emails. That led internet users to connect his pizza parlor to their conspiracy.
The theory soon appeared in bogus publications like The Vigilant Citizen and The New Nationalist on Facebook and Instagram. On Twitter and YouTube, other users amplified the content.
Fact checkers debunked the idea. But weeks after the November 2016 election, Edgar M. Welch, 32, a North Carolina resident, drove six hours to Comet Ping Pong to free what he believed were enslaved children. He shot several rounds from a military-style assault rifle into a locked closet door of the pizzeria and eventually surrendered to the police. In 2017, he was sentenced to four years in prison.
Soon after, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook suspended the accounts of users who had pushed PizzaGate and took down hundreds of related posts.
To keep PizzaGate tamped down, the social media companies took other steps. Facebook made it impossible to search for hashtags such as #pizzagateisreal. On YouTube, searching for #pizzagate brought up a label that explained the term was part of a false conspiracy. Twitter also stopped #pizzagate from surfacing in its trending topics in the United States.
But starting in April, a confluence of factors renewed interest.
A documentary promoting PizzaGate, “Out of Shadows,” made by a former Hollywood stuntman, was released on YouTube that month and passed around the QAnon community. In May, the idea that Mr. Bieber was connected to the conspiracy surfaced. Teenagers on TikTok began promoting both, as reported earlier by The Daily Beast.
A week ago, Rachel McNear, 20, watched “Out of Shadows,” which has garnered 15 million views on YouTube. She then turned to Twitter, where she came across Mr. Bieber’s supposed association with PizzaGate. After reading more on Instagram, YouTube and Facebook, she created a one-minute description of her research on the topic and posted it to TikTok on Monday.
“The mainstream media uses words like conspiracy theory and how it is debunked but I’m seeing the research,” Ms. McNear, of Timonium, Md., said in an interview.
Her video was taken down on Wednesday when TikTok removed the #PizzaGate hashtag and all content searchable with the term. A TikTok spokeswoman said such content violated its guidelines.
That same day, Facebook also expunged PizzaGate-related comments under Comet Ping Pong’s page after a call from The Times.
YouTube said it had long demoted PizzaGate-related videos and removes them from its recommendation engine, including “Out of Shadows.” Twitter said it constantly eliminates PizzaGate posts and had updated its child sexual-exploitation policy to prevent harm from the conspiracy. Facebook said it had created new policies, teams and tools to prevent falsehoods like PizzaGate from spreading.
Teenagers and young adults, many of whom are just forming political beliefs, are particularly susceptible to PizzaGate, said Travis View, a researcher and host of the “QAnon Anonymous” podcast, which examines conspiracy theories. They are drawn to celebrity photos on tabloid sites and Hollywood blogs to uncover PizzaGate’s supposed secret symbols and clues, he said. Even a triangle — which can signify a slice of pizza — can be taken as proof that a celebrity is part of a secret elite cabal.
“It all becomes a game, and people are drawn in because it feels participatory,” Mr. View said.
For Tony Podesta, John Podesta’s brother, PizzaGate’s revival has opened up old wounds. He had dealt with trolling from conspiracy believers in 2016. Recently, he got a voice mail message from an anonymous caller saying, “Your pizza is ready.”
“It just doesn’t go away,” Mr. Podesta said. “They are always three steps ahead of the sheriff.”
Cecilia Kang reported from Washington, and Sheera Frenkel from Oakland, Calif.